Ask Dr. K: Stop drinking to prevent reoccurrence of pancreatitis

DEAR DOCTOR K: My doctor has diagnosed me with chronic pancreatitis. Could this be related to my drinking? Can this condition be reversed?

DEAR READER: Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas, the large gland that lies behind the stomach.

Most cases of chronic pancreatitis are caused by long-term overuse of alcohol. Alcohol can bring on acute, or sudden, inflammation of the pancreas. If you keep drinking too much, you often get repeated attacks of acute pancreatitis. The pancreas heals itself after each of the first several attacks and resumes normal function.

However, if you continue to drink after repeated bouts of acute pancreatitis, you are more likely to develop chronic, or lasting, pancreatitis. The pancreas is permanently damaged.

The pancreas has two general roles. First, it produces digestive enzymes that are released into your intestine. The enzymes break apart the food you’ve eaten into tiny, digestible packages.The pancreas also produces hormones that control the level of sugar in your blood. The best-known hormone is insulin.

Chronic pancreatitis cannot be cured, but you can prevent further damage to your pancreas by eliminating alcohol use.

The most common symptom of pancreatitis is upper abdominal pain. The pain can occur daily or off and on, and it can be mild or intense. Once chronic pain develops, it tends to be long-lasting.

Don’t misunderstand: Pancreatitis is more than just a bad bellyache. An attack of pancreatitis can be very serious, leading to shock and even to death.

Your doctor will likely prescribe supplemental digestive enzymes. These will help with problems absorbing food and with resulting vitamin deficiencies. Your doctor also may recommend that you follow a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet that restricts some types of fats. Once your digestive problems are treated, you should gain back weight you’ve lost. Pancreatitis can also develop from conditions other than drinking too much alcohol. An example is gallstones.

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